“Would you take a pill that removed your boredom forever?”
I almost said “yes.” Boredom is excruciating. Doing nothing — meditating, sunbathing, kicking down the cobblestones — is lovely. Boredom is an unscratchable itch layered on top of that glorious nothing. Who needs that?
I almost said “yes,” but I know the trickery of thought experiments. I hedged: “Yes, if it doesn’t change anything else about my life.”
“Oh, but that’s the point. What do you think it would change?”
Last summer, I wanted to paint this gorgeous view:
As usual before starting a landscape, I tallied the things I loved about this particular view: the depth of the green of the trees, the wildflowers scattered in the foreground, the glow on the lake.
It was a glorious view, but 15 minutes later, I was yawning. The vista was green on green on green and trying to differentiate those 10 muddy greens from each other made me want to give up.
I paused and reconsidered. What was my aim in painting? Capturing my excitement about the view. Enhancing my appreciation. Riding the edge between representation and paint, playing with my brushstrokes. Loving nature like Spanish artist Joaquin Mir Trinxet did.
Well, I sure as hell wasn’t heading in that direction. Even if I got the damned greens right, would that take me where I wanted to go? It would lead me to accuracy, to realism — not to the type of art that brought me to life.
I loved the depth of the color of the trees, but did I love the particularities of their muddy color? I placed a stroke of pure, delicious blue in their shadows. I put purple on the trunks. I made the grass in the foreground emerald green because I love the color, then, seeing the grass pinking slightly as it dried, I added a blob of pink in for good measure.
I didn’t know where this would take me. I loved every moment.
There are terrible pictures that have taken time and pain to make, intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material. They frighten the sensitive student for the message they carry is of the pain and boredom of their making. — Robert Henri, “Art Spirit”
This Henri quote makes me think not of painting but of academic philosophy. How many papers had I read like that — intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material? How many papers like this had I forced myself to read through tears of boredom because they were on the topic of my dissertation — that great amalgamation of material I thought I had to write?
Henri gave me permission to trust my boredom. What if rather than a sign of insufficient stamina, it was a sign of taste? What if these texts were exactly what they appeared: meticulously researched crap? Of course, taste is subjective.
I used to feel guilty for how much “non-philosophy” was on my reading list: how much literature, pop science, education. Guilty about how much time I spent painting and writing nonacademic essays or polishing the words in my dissertation. I found those things so much more interesting than what I was “supposed” to do, but I approached them half-heartedly. Now I realized what Henri was saying: “People are often so affected by outside opinion that they go to their most important work half-hearted or half ashamed.”
Henri’s insight helped me write a better dissertation faster and more joyfully. I started aggressively skimming my bibliography and writing things I would actually enjoy reading. And these parts — faster, better, more joyfully — weren’t in conflict, as I’d thought — they were correlated. Henri says, “It is easier, I think, to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it.”
That’s not true for all senses of “easier,” but it points in the right direction. But then why do so many people do boring work? If it’s easier, why is having the will for it hard?
Doing and making what excites you is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. You risk judgment. You risk finding out that no one else is excited by what excites you. Straying from the beaten path, half of the time you’ll walk aimlessly through the darkling forest.
Being meticulous is safe. Doing what everyone else is doing is safe. Academia is — yes—safe.
At least, that’s what had brought me to graduate school: safety, not excitement. I wanted to look like someone who does what she loves, but I was terrified of stepping outside the strictures of academia (with its promises of status, perhaps even of stable employment) when my love flowed elsewhere.
Fear — of the “real” world, of judgment, of unemployment — brought me to academia. Boredom was the antidote that helped me escape.
Of course I wouldn’t take a pill to remove boredom forever. Boredom is a guide. It’s almost a moral compass. It’s what tells me that I have lost my “why.” Removing it would mean crawling patiently in the wrong direction.
People who suffer from congenital insensitivity to physical pain don’t live long. They don’t notice until it’s too late: They burn, cut, and bite themselves without realizing. Pain is a warning system, a guide.
Boredom is a type of pain, and it’s important for similar reasons. Maybe it’s even more important. I’m happy that my hand automatically escapes a hot burner before I even physically feel pain. But I wouldn’t want my boredom replaced by an automatic reflex, even if I ended up doing the same exact things I do now.
My painting — and my life — wouldn’t be mine in the same way if I didn’t actively use my boredom as a guide.
And my landscape? I painted over the patch of red-pink in the foreground three times before I found the right balance between safety and excitement, between getting it “right” and making it alive. I wouldn’t have it any other way.